I recently tried to survey free tools not just available to educators but created specifically for the K-12 education market.  I laughed out loud that there are curated lists of the top 500 free tools for educators.  Are there 500 not-free tools?  To say the genie is out of the bottle is an understatement.  If you are selling B2E, you are competing with free every day, and not just with hackneyed widgets, you are competing with top tier technology and education pedigreed firms. 

In the not too recent past, when a B2E rep had to compete with a free offering it was usually developed by a state department of ed.  Content was thin, the technology was often dated and drab, and there was also the advantage that schools and districts considered anything coming from their state as either “big brother creepy” or “out of touch with our needs as usual.” Man are those days over.  Enter Khan, RTTT, Common Core, B2C freemium, investment interest in ed tech, the cloud, the tablet, the App stores, tech providers giving away content to sell platforms, publishers giving away platforms to sell content, and digital natives entering the chalkboard side of the classroom.  The result was a disruption of epic proportions if not to educational outcomes, at least to educational sales.  It’s too early for a drink here, but re-living that all just now, I’m considering one. 

Everyone in ed tech, most importantly the consumer, should understand the implications of free as it becomes the new black.  Believe it or not, the B2E reps responsible for the “mium” at freemium companies are struggling to compete with free too.  Here are some tips to get the leg up on free, whether the competition comes from another company or your own:

1.  Realize we are living in Don Draper’s world and not Bert Cooper’s; the best things in life are NOT free.  If you have a prospect that thinks otherwise, help them understand cost of ownership.  From training and support to setup to troubleshooting to downtime to figuring out which classroom has what, there are tangible man hours involved in using free resources.  It is well worth asking someone that migrated to your tool from a free competitor, particularly a startup that was learning at that district’s expense, about the measurable costs they incurred on the frustration of having to support themselves.  Highlight the services your company supplies its paid subscribers; it is surely a weak spot for a free resource.  If you are a field-based rep YOU are part of the service, so be sure to make your local presence known.  A face-to-face relationship is rare and contributes so much to implementation success that it is worth paying for.

2.  Spotlight the silo.   Awesome that teachers have control over their classrooms again and are eager to test out resources if, and that’s a firm if, they are free.  The trouble is, freemium tools often hit a glass ceiling at the classroom level.  Teachers broadcast horizontally (their peers) about tools they like.  Teachers broadcast vertically (their admins) for the tools they want.  Key word there was “want.”  If they have a free version that works fine for them, they’ll save their clout for another battle.  How do you make this axiom work for you?  First, you must sample to teachers in some way.  This could be a trial of some sort, a scaled down version, or review copy.  Second you should involve their admin immediately.  For example, maybe a teacher’s trial access code is always only emailed to their building principal.  Now all three of you are in the conversation.  Third, you need to engage those admins in a conversation about the danger of the classroom silo.  Data from classroom level tools is controlled by the teacher, not the school. Kids don’t grow their data trail year after year when a resource relies on teacher-driven account management, not to mention the nuisance (take it from a mother of four) of getting sent multiple accounts from various classrooms.  And often free accounts can’t be linked for teacher-teacher or teacher-admin collaboration, which can be a competitive advantage for your product.

3.  Flash your badge.  Student privacy is a major concern.  Like federal regulation major concern.  Steve Silvius, COO and Co-Founder of Three Ring, was recently published in Edsurge discussing how freemium can impact student privacy. Free tools have to monetize somewhere, whether advertising, sale of data, or even selling out one day to a company that wants to advertise or sell the data, or they can’t survive financially for the long term.  Any of those conditions should give rise to fear, uncertainty and doubt to administrators, especially when the only person in a district making decisions about collecting and sharing student data is a classroom teacher.  Coach your prospects to demand transparency on a clear privacy policy from all their vendors–free and paid.

4.  Pass me a bottled water, please.  The $12B bottled water industry is the ultimate case for how to beat free.  Bottled water wins on one thing — convenience. What convenience do you provide?  Curation?  Teachers invest a lot of time searching for free lesson plans.  Complex product integrations are rarely found in free tools but offer a huge amount of convenience.  Insights are time saving convenience.  Dashboards, reports, and alerts can’t help educators when there is no wide-scale standardized use or centralized data hub.

5.  Play Offense, Play Defense Free and freemium tools have a real problem when it comes to client relationships.  You can’t manage what you can’t count.  Because accounts are setup for individuals and not schools, and there is no penalty for starting lots of free accounts, you wind up with a zillion dead accounts cluttering the database, and little knowledge of to what school or district user accounts belong.  Google Analytics is as close as some get to knowing where their users are. These companies unfortunately are left to rely on automated messaging or social media to drive usage and retention when they engage their user bases at all, and that leaves an opportunity for highly motivated paid subscription operations to cozy up to their clients.  If your distribution channel is active, informed and driven, you will have a fairly absentee competitor, and for pete’s sake, when you have a client relationship, make sure you are investing in product development and support to keep it.  If it isn’t motivating your company to know that your client has many ways to replace your product for free, then you kind of deserve to lose them.   

6.  Purpose.  There are cases that I confess I have no answer for.  If your product competes with Google Classroom, for example, I think lighting candles is my best viable advice.  It’s free, it meets teacher’s needs, has no ads, and allegedly student accounts are not data-mined.  But I will say this, being 100% B2E is an important advantage.  I’ve spoken to enough of the Fortune 100’s education departments to spot a trend.  It isn’t their bread and butter, but they want to dabble in education. You can tell by the titles of departments such as “Enterprise, Education and Government Sales,” where B2E falls in their development priorities.  These B2C behemoths want a share of education or the associated PR,  but aren’t really experts in, or able to modify their offerings for the unique needs of educators.  Being purpose-built for education is a huge competitive advantage you need to tout when competing with general market free resources.

Get your facts, know your free competition as well as your paid, and don’t underestimate it.  Take advantage of the fact that they might be underestimating you, and the ROI scale might tip surprisingly in your favor.



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